Shame

Posted August 17, 2009 in Africa, Philosophy, Uganda

I am about to leave my Software Engineering career in New York to study Journalism at Carleton University (in Ottawa). I am constantly asked to explain such insanity; so I am reviving an old essay I wrote (after returning from Uganda but before volunteering in Tanzania) which might help explain why I am more interested in journalism at this stage of my life.

Would you like to hear about my most shameful moment?

I was about eleven years old. I had been left alone with satellite television: quite a novelty for my pre-teen self, who grew up with no television whatsoever. I was new to the concept of channel-surfing, and as such I was quite inefficient in my quest to uncover the needle of cartoons in the haystack of hundreds of channels of Sunday-morning programming.

At my level of channel-flipping street sense, it is understandable that I got stuck on an infomercial for a minute or so. I was knowledgeable enough to never consider buying whatever was for sale; I was also well-informed about how infomercial-viewing is a faux-pas. But alone with the remote control, I allowed myself one minute of guilty curiosity: I watched a paid advertisement.

I only remember fragments. I remember the television: 24 inches. I remember the remote control: the top part of the control flipped up to reveal four identical rows of six tiny buttons each: secret buttons, normally hidden from view, designed to perplex even the most intrepid users. Through the television speakers I heard a vaguely impassioned woman narrating, constantly repeating something about the price of a cup of coffee per day. Through the television screen I saw children—black children—in a somewhat desert-like environment: stereotypical Africa. I remember that the overlaid text was white: it contrasted the black stomachs.

I was curious about everything; I knew nothing about Africa. Quite naturally, my analytical intellect began to process the influx of new information fed through the television screen. I quickly arrived at three conclusions. I feel no shame in revealing the first two, which were excusably naïve:

1. Africa is dry.

2. There are starving black children in Africa.

After that one minute watching the infomercial, though, I came to my third, most shameful conclusion:

3. I do not care.

Upon making this decision, I sprang into action. Flip! The children disappeared from the screen and from my mind.

At the time, I felt no shame—at least, not the shame I should have felt. With that flip of a channel, I had effectively hidden all evidence of my ineptitude at channel-surfing, my sole concern at the time. I quickly glanced over my shoulder to make sure nobody had witnessed my minute of watching what social convention dictates I should never watch. Satisfied, I continued my hunt for cartoons.


I only felt the true shame of that moment—that instant when I flipped the channel—much later. In fact, not once in the intervening years did I even think for an instant about the infomercial: it had vanished from my memory.

Twelve years after the channel-flip, armed with little more than a few generic statistics and my ever-analytical mind, I quite suddenly found myself in a dusty, war-ravaged land, surrounded by starving, black African children.

There was only one difference, and I was stunned that nobody had thought to warn me about it: these are real people! The infomercial children were only an advertisement, right? Whereas these real people existed in a real world so blunt I felt I had found a new definition of the word "real;" and they needed much more than a cup of coffee. I tried to talk with the children (though I only knew three words of their language). I played with the children, at least, and I did talk with some adults. Quite by accident, on that sunny, hot afternoon, I fell in love with them all.

All too soon, it was time for me to leave. Still emotionally reeling, I did not protest: I left. For a while, I could do nothing but mentally digest the world that had been presented to me.

Some days later, emotions tentatively trickled back into me. And suddenly, in a moment of epiphany, I remembered flipping that channel twelve years earlier. I had just done it again: I had just stared at thousands of destitute, starving children; I had concluded they had no hope; and I had left them as suddenly as I had come. I likened my swift departure to the almost-cruel finality with which I had mashed the button on that remote control twelve years earlier. Shame flooded into me without mercy: twelve years of pure shame, retroactively applied, interest compounded daily.

I deserve that shame, and I hope that shame will never leave me. The ease with which I can blind myself is truly malicious; I must never forget.

The worst part is that I am not alone. If my channel-flip twelve years ago had been the only one in the world—if I were an aberration of our species—that would be one thing. But I am not the only person who avoids infomercials about starving children in Africa.


After opening my eyes, I cannot close them. Everywhere I look, I see wilful ignorance. I see it in acquaintances afraid to watch Hotel Rwanda or documentaries about Africa; I see it in friends who ask for a romantic story about Africa, minus the gritty bits; and, most literally, I keep seeing remote controls clicking away people's stories.

My self-righteous preaching will not change the reality: a remote control can negate a genocide.


Nothing can shame me more than being human. We are careless, ignorant, selfish, stupid, reckless, pretentious, and close-minded. I flipped that channel twelve years ago because such behaviour is wired into my very being. I am ashamed of myself, and I am ashamed of humanity.

I can do something to ease the pain. Ironically, I have found that my channel-flipping ability can be used to my advantage. Our world is filled with overwhelming quantities of unsurpassable good and incomprehensible evil. With my congenital remote control, I can shut out most evils to concentrate my efforts on fighting a few. I can also open my heart to some good, to give myself a feeling of purpose and hope. In an eerily literal sense, I control what I see and feel.

In my once-so-simple quest for truth: I resign, kicking and screaming. Though I will learn until the day I die, I will never learn a fraction of our world. Yet I am still inspired. By what? Humanity, of course. In spite of ourselves, we are worth fighting for.

Or maybe I just say all this to feel important. I am, after all, only human.